In early 2012, an increase in racing fatalities at Aqueduct led to a call for a Task Force to study the causes. (Between November 30, 2011, and March 18, 2012, 21 horses died, a number about twice that for each of the prior two Aqueduct winter meets.) The Task Force conducted a comprehensive review and made a number of recommendations, many of which dealt with the administration of permitted drugs and the practice of racetrack veterinary medicine. The increase in fatalities was also cited as a factor leading to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision in May to have New York state government take control of thoroughbred racing, replacing the former New York Racing Association Board with one controlled by appointees of the state’s political leadership.
Because of the increased scrutiny on equine safety, I have been tracking fatalities at the current Aqueduct meet, comparing them with comparable periods for the last two meets. My source for information is the data posted on the site of the Racing and Wagering Board, the state agency with regulatory authority over racing. For the period of December 1 through January 15, there were the following racing fatalities at Aqueduct: four in 2010 – 2011; seven in 2011 – 2012; six in 2012 – 2013. (Please see the Note at the end.) Since the track runs five days per week and is closed for about a week during Christmas, we are looking at 27 or 28 racing days from December 1 through January 15.
Should this year’s six fatalities be a cause for concern? As an owner, I would say that a fatal breakdown by a horse that we put into training or racing is unbearable. Yes, they are inherently competitive animals, but they don’t wear saddles and jockeys on a farm. Injuries, and sometimes death, are regrettably an inevitable occurrence. From a statistical perspective, however, I do not see a big difference between this year’s six deaths and the four from two years ago. It is a 50 per cent increase, but the numbers are so small compared to the number of horses that would have raced over each period (about 2,000), that I cannot see the difference as significant.
The new NYRA Board apparently has a different take. On Thursday, new Board Chairman David Skorton announced that the next meeting of the Board, on January 25, will consider changes for the Aqueduct inner track meet, including: reducing the number of racing days; reducing the number of races per day; bolstering “security measures related to pre-race security and racing integrity”; and, installing a synthetic surface. (Steven Crist has an excellent piece on the wisdom of going synthetic.) The Board will also consider whether to “curtail racing.” Since reducing the number of days and the number of races would seem to be “curtailing,” I am guessing this really means that the Board will consider the cancellation of racing.
While my initial take was that this was a considerable overreaction, my concern was heightened measurably when I watched the Friday webcast of the Franchise Oversight Board. The FOB, as it is affectionately known, is another state agency with oversight authority for racing in New York. One Board member raised the “serious problem at Aqueduct,” which he described as “relatively high fatalities.” Another actually referred to the inner track as the “killing fields,” and raised the possibility of suspending racing. (Unlike some members of the NYRA Board, including the Chairman, who are new to their oversight responsibilities, the FOB member who made the remark about the killing fields has been around long enough so that his term is about to expire.)
Chairman Skorton should be commended for his interest in equine safety and health (as well as for the human participants), but it is difficult to view his response to this year’s fatalities as being warranted. It is not as if state government has moved with alacrity in addressing the problems first identified last March. While the Governor rammed his bill taking control of racing through a somnolent Legislature in a matter of days (shades of the recent gun control bill), he waited over three months to actually sign it. The Task Force report on last year’s deaths was given to him in August, but he waited another month to release it. He appointed the new NYRA Board in October, but they met only once in their first three months.
Then there are the delays in implementing the Task Force’s recommendations - included in a comprehensive report by respected industry figures that was widely and justifiably praised when the public finally got to see it in September. Changes to the permissible time periods for administering a small number of drugs did not take effect until December 26, even though the recommendations were immediately accepted (and trumpeted) by the Cuomo Administration. The establishment of the position of Equine Veterinary Medical Director – a key recommendation of the Task Force - was announced just this past Thursday, even though it was not accompanied by an announcement of a person who would actually do the job. Conducting a necropsy on a fatally injured animal, also a Task Force recommendation, was again not announced until Thursday. And those are only a handful of the literally dozens of recommendations made in the Report from almost four months ago. To say that the significant changes recommended by the Task Force have either not been implemented, or only recently implemented, means that we do not know if they will serve to reduce fatalities is, of course, blatantly obvious. What is also obvious, however, is that the new Board undoubtedly feels the need to make its mark on New York racing, and to demonstrate that they are an improvement over the prior Board (even though most of them were on that prior Board).
Of particular concern though is whether the discussions concerning the current Aqueduct meet are being driven by facts as opposed to anecdote, supposition or, worse of all, a political agenda. To suggest that the current rate of fatalities at Aqueduct is worse than last year, or significantly different than the year before, is simply inaccurate. Chairman Skorton’s assertion that establishing the position of Medical Director is an “immediate step to prevent more catastrophic injuries,” is, on its face, foolish. The only thing it might prevent is public criticism for doing so little to implement the Task Force recommendations.
And if the recommendations of the Task Force that were justifiably praised on their release are to be taken seriously, should they not be given a chance to work? Red flags are always raised when dramatic changes are proposed that are not supported by the evidence, since it suggests that the true motivation underlying the changes are not being revealed.
It should also be noted that the new NYRA Board has plenty to do, and they don’t need to be creating problems to address. At the first meeting of the Board on December 12, they approved a number of committees and committed to holding committee meetings in accordance with the state’s Open Meeting law. Chairman Skorton also realized that his plan of not holding another full Board meeting for three months would not address the pressing issues faced by NYRA. The result, however, has only been the announcement of another Board meeting six weeks later and no announcement of committee meetings. I recently read an entertaining article on procrastination (given my lifelong adherence to this philosophy). The thrust of the article was that procrastination was not so bad as long as you were doing something useful instead of the more necessary task. I hope that is not the model being followed by the new NYRA Board as it elevates the Aqueduct fatalities to the top of their list.
Note: The records of the Racing and Wagering Board on equine deaths show that there were five such deaths from racing in the period December 1, 2010 to January 15, 2011. One identified fatality was of Rum Row on December 11. The result charts, however, do not show such a runner on that day, and Equibase data indicates that the horse by that name never raced. Incidentally - or maybe not so incidentally - of the 17 fatalities that occurred on the approximately 80 racing days I looked at, there were three days when two horses died, and two others died either the day before or the day after the multiple deaths. That means that almost one-half (8 of 17) deaths occurred on only five days.